This is how you know OWS has had an effect

NewImageby Bruce R

How To Break Up a Peaceful Protest Peacefully
[Via American Times]

The eviction of Occupy St. Louis was surprisingly calm.

Occupy St. Louis was evicted recently, but it didn’t end in blood and tears. No pepper-spray was deployed. No protesters found themselves on the other end of a baton. In fact, if reports are accurate, police in St. Louis decided to opt for wits over brute strength, and common sense over riot gear.

Via Radley Balko, Brad Hicks describes how the eviction of Occupy St. Louis went down:

The first thing they did was the one that baffled me the most, at first: they gave the protesters nearly 36 hours notice, as opposed to the 20 to 60 minutes’ notice other cities gave. It has taken me almost a week, and the mistakes of several other cities, to see why that was a good idea, because here’s how they did it. Early afternoon on Thursday, they gave the protesters 24 hours’ notice: as of 3pm on Friday, the no structures in the plaza rule was going to be enforced, and as of 10pm, the curfew was going to be enforced. So, unsurprisingly, Occupy St. Louis put out a huge call for as many people as possible to come to the plaza by noon, to be trained in peaceful civil disobedience; local civil liberties lawyers showed up to brief them. Needless to say, the cops did not oblige them by showing up at 3pm. Heck, I knew they weren’t going to show up at 3pm; no way were they going to snarl downtown traffic during rush hour; I told my friend not to expect them any earlier than 7pm at the very earliest.

So, when no cops showed up anywhere near 3pm, the protesters had their biggest rally to date (as I suspect the cops were thinking, “getting it out of their system”), and then started to drift away. Rally organizers advised people to be back before 10pm, to block the enforcement of curfew. Sure enough, by 10pm, they had 350 people down there. And scant minutes later, people were jazzed up and ready to go, because outlying scouts reported that the police were gathering, en masse, with multiple cars, multiple buses, an ambulance, and a firetruck, only a couple of blocks away!

And sometime around an hour, hour and a half later, the cops just disappeared, dispersed, without ever having gotten within two blocks of the plaza. So the confused protesters declared victory, let most of the troops go home, and fewer than a hundred of them bedded down for the night in their tents. An hour later, somewhere around 150 cops showed up. I’m sure people in those tents tweeted and text messaged and phoned for reinforcements. But between the late hour, and the fact that people were exhausted after having been out there all day, and that it was the third call-up of the day? Nobody showed.


So far this is pretty smart. Using the protestor’s own tools against them. Give them plenty of chance to think and organize and then wait.

But the next step was what not only made this brilliant but showed how some of the ideas of the OWS movement can inform authorities.

Ah, but the cops did more than just show up after two head-fakes and with sufficient numbers … they did right exactly what the Obama administration told everybody else to do wrong. They didn’t show up in riot gear and helmets, they showed up in shirt sleeves with their faces showing. They not only didn’t show up with SWAT gear, they showed up with no unusual weapons at all, and what weapons they had all securely holstered. They politely woke everybody up. They politely helped everybody who was willing to remove their property from the park to do so. They then asked, out of the 75 to 100 people down there, how many people were volunteering for being-arrested duty? Given 33 hours to think about it, and 10 hours to sweat it over, only 27 volunteered. As the police already knew, those people’s legal advisers had advised them not to even passively resist, so those 27 people lined up to be peacefully arrested, and were escorted away by a handful of cops. The rest were advised to please continue to protest, over there on the sidewalk … and what happened next was the most absolutely brilliant piece of crowd control policing I have heard of in my entire lifetime.

All of the cops who weren’t busy transporting and processing the voluntary arrestees lined up, blocking the stairs down into the plaza. They stood shoulder to shoulder. They kept calm and silent. They positioned the weapons on their belts out of sight. They crossed their hands low in front of them, in exactly the least provocative posture known to man. And they peacefully, silently, respectfully occupied the plaza, using exactly the same non-violent resistance techniques that the protesters themselves had been trained in.

No military outfits. No SWAT. No us-vs-them show of force. They showed up as normal people – looking every bit the 99% that the OWS has kept telling the police they are.

Respectful and encouraging, they were just guys doing their job, as best as they knew how. They had used their knowledge of the movement and people involved to the best advantage for everyone.

And the idea that they used the same non-violent techniques to occupy the plaza to prevent further OWS occupation makes this a tremendous story.

Because this eviction was not a pure demonstration of power by authorities over protesting citizens, as it has been almost everywhere else. Most of the purpose for the occupation is to provoke just the sorts of images we have seen – because they often go directly to the unfairness of the system when it (ab)uses force.

Here, we have citizens asking other citizens to leave, treating both with respect. Now the shoe is on the other foot. If any protestor did anything to hurt an officer, the protestors would be the ones in the wrong. The entire focus of the movement was put on its head.

The protestors demonstrated their attachment to their principles by calmly being arrested or moving.

But to accomplish this, the authorities had to change their behavior. They had to learn to do something different because this movement is, in many ways, designed to screw up the previous training of the authorities.

They basically had to trust that the protestors would act the way that they had said they would – peacefully and passively.

This change in behavior is actually one I would expect many in the OWS movement to applaud. Even if it brilliantly dissipates much of their momentum.

Because it demonstrates an adaptability that is, I think, inherent in eventually combating many of our problems. OWS will adapt to these techniques and the best authorities will adapt also.

To my mind, the creation of public communities that learn to adapt could be a huge milestone for the OWS movement. Adaptation and resilience will be key to surviving our problems. The faster the authorities become inculcated with this idea, the better we will all be.

5 thoughts on “This is how you know OWS has had an effect

  1. I like this article. Thank you.

    I suppose the police in this scenario didn’t draw a line in the sand so much as initiate a mutual understanding of where the line was, then invite the protesters to accept it and act accordingly.


  2. @Dan – and exactly the point. Civil protest was met with civil procedure, and everyone respected both positions. This is exactly what it should be in America. Honor on both sides; just doing our public duty as citizens and police. Bravo on all sides.

    I wouldn’t agree with “Even if it brilliantly dissipates much of their momentum.” – those policemen demonstrated the opposite. OWS isn’t trying to “revolutionize” in an old reverse-the-sides-of-the-chessboard sense despite the hotheads and provocateurs; it is Go: changing the dualist, linear board and thinking laterally.

    As many of us have pointed out, we are not against “capitalism,” only corruption of the system. We love America and swore an oath to stand as watchful citizens doing our duty in defense of the principles on which this country was founded. We are now exercising that duty.

    1. @Miso – I don’t really disagree with you. I should have been clearer about next steps. Its momentum in one direction may be lessened but its overall force for change is still very strong. I like your Go metaphor because it does encapsulate much of my thinking.

      I do think that this approach taken by both the St Louis and the Boston police lessens the momentum of the first stage of this protest – the simple act of Occupying. The fact that the police have adapted tactics in such a way is a very great victory. Now OWS will simply change tactics again requiring the authorities to adapt. Look to the West Coast Port shutdown as an example.

      By having to continually adapt to OWS, perhaps someday the change in the authorities will be enough to help bring about real change in the system.

      As we have seen, cookie-cutter approaches to the legitimate protests often backfire. So the authorities adapt. But that very adaptivity begins to inculcate the ideals of OWS inside the authority organizations themselves. They begin a change from a rigid structure to a more adaptive and resilient one. They begin to think like OWS in ways that, to my mind, are ultimately beneficial to us all.

      OWS will not go away. And by continuing it will effect change in the very organizations that oppose it. I hope so. In the past when faced with huge societal changes that needed to be made, the powers that be simply refused, often resulting in warfare and tremendous hardship. Movements like OWS seem to be the best hope for a better future than that.

  3. @Richard – we do agree :) This, to me, is exactly what Occupying was/is about – articulating in a very public manner the thoughts and feelings of many in this country who thought they were alone for the last 10-30 years, speaking about these things in family dens, over the back fence to neighbors, etc but never seeing represented in mainstream media. The act of Occupying, to me, is a consciousness-raising exercise, not “us against the police” which must be carefully maintained at this stage.

    The dissipating you see, I see as osmosis and resonance; these are the people we must reach (policemen included); if they understand enough to deal with a peaceful protest in the way that has been used for years before the march to militarism after Sept. 11, 2001 and the resulting insanity (respectfully doing their job and respecting the right of the People to peacefully assemble and air their grievances) then that is exactly what is being asked for – only the rights of every free person under various governmental charters and constitutions.

    And yes, I share your hope that sense, reason and true patriotism will prevail. The fact that this is happening all over the world is an indication that a tremendous change is needed in our orientation to this planet and to each other.

    Peace. And thx for the thoughtful and insightful post.

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